Sunday, April 29, 2012

Got a Black Magic Puppy

On Tuesday, Cleo was executed three times and brought back to life, all in the service of education.  This is how it came to be.

The week before, the ninth grade history teacher, Mr. B., a Santa Cruz hippie born in Lancashire, England, and a true character, approached me with a request.  “Do you think I might borrow Cleo next week?”  He was about to embark on a lesson on the medieval witch trials, and he wanted to put Cleo on the stand.  “I want to try her as a witch, ya see?”

During the witch trials, it was not at all uncommon for dogs to be called as witnesses against their owners, or even to be required to answer accusations against themselves.  The courts would have called cats, too, had they not already had all of them hung for witchcraft.  Of course, without cats the rat population exploded, leading to the Black Death which swept through Europe killing a third to a half of the population of the time, wiping whole villages out of existence, so the cats had the last laugh there.

Mr. B. planned to ask Cleo a few questions, find her guilty and haul her off to be burned at the stake.  He thought that using her, a dog the students all knew and were fond of, would both catch their attention and give them a graphic sense of the brutality of the witch trials.  Initially, I thought it was a brilliant idea, but when I got home that night and told John about it, his reaction was very different from mine.  “I don’t like that at all,” he told me, a frown pinching his forehead.  “What if she gets scared.  I don’t want anybody yelling at her.”  Ah, the protective daddy!  He was worried about his little girl!  Come to think of it, I didn’t want anyone yelling at her, either.  Sure, she’s known discipline, but she has never known harshness.  Dogs don’t understand “acting.”  They don’t do pretend; they’re far too sincere.  She would never comprehend fake yelling, especially if she was simply trying to do what she was asked.

When the teacher came back to me early this week to confirm Cleo’s availability for the next day, I asked for details of what her role would be.  “You’re not going to yell at her are you?” I asked him.  He looked shocked: “Oh, no, no, no!” he said.  Then gave me an outline of what he had planned. 

Mr. B. is a curious fellow.  Regular readers of this blog might remember him as the colleague who, when introduced to Cleo for the first time, looked down at the teensy ball of fluff that she was in those days and sneered, “Hello, dog.”  For months, whenever he came into my office to consult about something, he would look with disgust at the puppy and half turn away from her, doing his best to ignore the unseemly creature.  Then, something changed; students began telling me that she had started to appear in his stories.
One of the reasons this teacher is so popular is because he makes history come alive.  For him, it’s not about dry dates and names; no, he puts the story back in history, and he makes it riveting.  Often, as he relates events, he’ll draw parallels to the students’ lives or he’ll introduce schoolmates as characters in the stories.  At first, Cleo was the example of the character who seemed to embody innocence and sweetness, yet who, without warning, went bad and murdered all the townspeople.  As time went by, she “appeared” whenever a noble animal was called for.  By now, her roles have gotten more and more sympathetic and loveable.  So I was pleased and relieved to hear what he had planned for her witch trial. 

The next morning, Maggie, Cleo’s best buddy at school, came by to pick her up.  Mr. B. had arranged with Maggie’s other teachers for her to be at all three sections of ninth grade history.  Because of my own class schedule, I could attend only one.  Off we went to medieval England.  Knowing what was going to be asked of Cleo, Maggie had been doing some training with her just before her debut.  As soon as we walked in, there was a chorus of “Cleo!”  This was followed by, “Hi, Mrs. Sherry,” “Maggie isn’t in this section,” “Why are you here, Mrs. Sherry?” and “Why’s Cleo here?”  Maggie, completely in her role as assistant to the judge, kept a stony face.  Mr. B. responded to all the questions with some jest or other.  Until the last question.  To this he answered, “Because I’m going to try her for witchcraft!”  The students laughed.

“Cleo, please take the stand,” he commanded.  Maggie gestured to the chair that was set up at the front of the room.  Cleo hopped onto it, turned around to face the class and sat, happily looking around.  “Cleo,” Mr. B. continued, “you are charged with casting your spirit into students and causing them to do harm.”  Here, he mixed a little recent ninth grade scandal into the story.  “Last week, one ninth grader played a thoughtless joke on another, daring him to jump over a chain, then raising it, causing the victim to trip on the chain and fall onto asphalt, grievously spraining his elbow.”  The students laughed and shifted in their seats, exchanging knowing looks.  “Cleo, place your hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth.”  Maggie gestured and Cleo put not one, but two paws onto the book Mr. B. held (a treat was seen to pass from hand to mouth on this one).  “Aha!” Mr. B. exclaimed.  “That proves it!  This was not the Bible.  She has just sworn on the Malleus Malleficarum, the witches’ handbook!”

“That’s not fair!” a student protested.  “You tricked her.”

“Yeah,” called another, “she didn’t know what the book was.”

“No matter,” Mr. B. replied, waving away their comments.  “It’s still proof.  Cleo, do you deny that you have done these deeds?”  He paused.

“Maggie, make her nod or something,” prompted one of the girls.

Mr. B. cut her off.  “She doesn’t deny it!”

“But she can’t!  She’s a dog!”

“Ah!” Mr. B. exclaimed, delighted.  “So you’re defending her?”  He grinned from ear to ear.  “Who else wants to defend her.”

A couple hands flew into the air, and a voice or two spoke out, “I do!”

“Then you’re all in collusion with her!”  Mr. B. looked victorious.  “It’s obvious!  You’re witches, too.  Wait here and I’ll deal with you.  In the meantime….” He laughed ominously and pulled a barbecue lighter off his desk, flicking the flame into a stream of fire.  “Cleo is sentenced to be burned at the stake!”  As he swept out of the room, followed by Maggie and a peppily prancing Cleo, a storm of protest followed him.  A beat, then Mr. B. reappeared in the doorway.  “The job is done,” he announced, holding up a package of hotdogs.

When the laughter had died down, an active discussion began and lasted through class and beyond.  Educators now know, thanks to modern brain science, that lessons that endure and stay with us for years are those that are connected to our emotions.  I initially thought of Cleo as a source of comfort for students.  I love that others can see different, equally meaningful roles for her.  I have no doubt about Cleo’s position at the school.  She is so clearly part of the warp and (forgive me) woof of the whole community.

Cleo & Maggie

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Rain It Raineth Every Day

This has been a busy week for Cleo.  In some ways it’s been a rough one.  The unseasonable torrential rains and icy winds made prolonged outings impossible two days in a row.  On both those mornings, I opened Cleo’s crate in the milky light of 6 AM and after her usual four point stretch, she went straight to the French door, asking to be let out for her morning constitutional.  “It’s pretty wet out there,” I whispered to her, opening the door.  The rain was thunking onto our roof and deck as though each drop were the size of a basketball.  Even where it was slowed by the limbs of the giant Monterey Pine in our backyard the rain pattered and leapt back skyward after hitting the ground.  In her sleep-fogged state (she is as slow to wake up in the morning as I am), Cleo missed all the soggy evidence of the downpour that first morning; she padded outside, froze, then pivoted and came straight back in.  We stood, Cleo staring out at the rain, me staring at Cleo.  She sniffed.  She debated.  “Just come up on the bed,” I suggested.  No, it was clear, she really had to go!  She took a step forward.  Splat!  A rain globule hit her square on the nose.  She backed up in a hurry and sat down a couple feet from the door.  Her left paw held up in supplication, she looked me in the eye, a crease of worry wrinkling her brow.  “Mom,” she seemed to be saying, “make it stop!”  She crept back to the door and gazed out once more, then, visibly steeling herself, she trotted out, hugging the side of the house, and rounded the corner, set to take care of business.  She was out there for a surprisingly long time, given the downpour and gusts of Alaskan wind that shook the pine and rattled the bamboo.  While she was out, I ducked into the bathroom to grab a towel.  Her frantic pawing at the door got me back in a hurry.  Paws wiped, warming rubdown and up onto the bed.  Where she slammed against John, frantically using the comforter cover to thoroughly erase every remaining trace of rain from her face, legs and body.  Once she’s fully awake, she has no problem going out into the rain.  In fact, I think it invigorates her.  But let’s face it, who wants to get out of a nice warm, cozy bed and take a cold shower first thing in the morning?

At School, the grey days have cast a pall over everyone.  Cleo and I were so busy talking to students that at one point, I had to keep a sick student waiting outside my office, ashen and trembling, while I talked to another who was having an I’ve-completely-over-committed-myself-and-now-I’m-overwhelmed meltdown, using up most of a box of tissues.  On Monday, Cleo played with a student who periodically becomes so exhausted from the daily strain of hiding his depression from his friends that he has to take a break.  He presented himself at our door right before last period.  “Can I sit in here?” he asked me.  “I’m just not feelin’ it.”  Though he didn’t want to talk, he did want to lie on the couch and play tug-of-war with Cleo and her stuffed otter.  “She’s sweet,” he told me succinctly after I asked him to let me know if she was bothering him.  When I next looked over to see how he was doing, he was asleep, one leg hanging over the edge of the cushions.  Cleo slept just above his head, nestled in the pillows on the back of the couch.  When he woke up a while later, the first thing he did was reach up to pat her.  She opened one eye and regarded him with approval. 

Another day, we entertained a champion runner who nearly passed out just after lunch.  Between the fact that his resting heart rate is a mere thirty beats per minute and the careless packing of a lunch that didn’t have enough nutritional content, he wasn’t at his best that afternoon.  He jokingly told me, “Sometimes if I stand up between heartbeats, my brain isn’t happy with me.”  I couldn’t help being a bit of a nag and suggesting that taking the time to pack a lunch that could sustain him through the afternoon might be one of those life skills he’ll need in college next year.  “Yeah,” he said, “my mom keeps saying the same thing.”  A package of noodle soup, an active political conversation (he’s a pragmatic conservative; I’m, let us say, not), and a wonderful tussle with Cleo got him going again.

Perhaps the most touching encounter we had this week was with a young student whose family is moving out of state at the end of the school year.  They are all terribly sad to be leaving, the student most of all, but adults sometimes have to make very hard choices for the whole family, and in this case, they are going where the father has found a good job after several months of anxious unemployment.  The mother confided to me that when they told their boys that they would be moving, our student’s only response was, “But what about School?”  I had refrained from saying anything to him for several weeks, hoping that he would find some equanimity with the inevitable.  On Friday, the student met with me to discuss an essay that he was working on.  As he packed up after our meeting, I decided to tell him how sorry I was that he was leaving.  “Bernie,” I said.  He looked up at me with his habitual grave expression.  “I’m heartbroken that you’re leaving us next year.”  He looked down at his backpack.  I went on, “You are an excellent student and truly a lovely human being.  You embody everything we value at this school.”  He turned sharply away from me, an odd thing to do because he had also turned away from the door.  It dawned on me: I had just made a thirteen-year-old boy cry.  What would embarrass a thirteen-year-old boy more than crying in front of his English teacher?  Probably not much.  There was nowhere to go: I was between him and the door; he was between me and my desk.  I tried to salvage the situation.  “But you know, you will be successful wherever you are.”  Without turning around, he hoisted his enormous backpack, almost bigger than he is, and slung it onto his back.  He stared out the window.  I was desperate!  How could I help him save face?  He flipped the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head.  How could I smooth a road for him out the door without him having to turn around to face me?  It’s not like he could back out of my office.  Suddenly, I saw something click in him.  He lunged forward.  His hand shot out.  What is he doing? flashed through my mind.  Cleo, in her favorite spot on the back of the couch, was the perfect cover!  Why, he couldn’t leave my office without saying goodbye to her, could he?  As he patted her, I looked at the floor and scooted past him, around the edge of my desk, allowing him a clear passage to the door.  He turned, head still down, hood still up, and headed for the door.  “Have a great weekend,” I said, trying to put as much warmth and support into the insipid words as I could.  He grunted and was gone.

I sat down next to Cleo and rested my cheek on her side.  One eyelid opened and she regarded me sleepily.  “You are so good,” I told her.  “You are such a help.  Thank you.”  She heaved a sigh, snuggled her nose further under her arm, and closed her eye with finality.

It’s all in a day’s work.  Wake me when the rain stops.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Is Timmy Happier Than Hamlet? Thank Lassie!

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about digital connectedness.  Obviously there are lots of reasons to love it.  Without it, I wouldn’t be writing this blog and hearing from people all over the world who read and enjoy the stories of Cleo.  I check out multiple news sources every day without killing a single tree.  If I have a question about some allusion in an article, that question is answered in .13 seconds—I know that because Google tells me so.  For whatever reason, my local supermarket has stopped selling my favorite tea.  I just bought six boxes of it on Amazon and it will be delivered to my door, for free, by Wednesday.  Yesterday morning, I suddenly remembered that I needed to read a book for work; it was on my iPad in less than five minutes.  Missed the first season of Game of Thrones?  No problem!  It can be streaming to your TV in the time it takes to mix the evening cocktail.  I love this stuff!

But with all of these miraculous advantages come some drawbacks.  I remember the days when you’d hear that someone received twenty-five emails in a single day and you figured she was the CEO of a major corporation.  These days, I empty my deleted emails folder every week because I don’t like it when the contents goes above five hundred items.  That’s just the deleted ones; that doesn’t include all the emails I’ve read and filed because they contain information about a particular student or an on-going work project.  It’s not uncommon for a student to contact me with a question over the weekend.  Could the question wait till Monday?  Sure!  But why wait when you can have instant access.  When I first started working at the school, we had a twenty-four hour turnaround policy—teachers and administrators were expected to answer all phone calls and emails within twenty-four hours of receiving them.  Lately, I’ve had parents who emailed me at 10 o’clock at night complain that I haven’t addressed their question by 8 o’clock the next morning.  Even colleagues have cornered me as I walk to the mail room, head out to the washroom, or take the extremely rare lunch break in the faculty room.  “Did you get my email?” they ask.  “I haven’t heard back from you.”  How long ago did they send it?  About half an hour.  There is never a chance to be untethered from the electronic device.

In his book Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers reminds his readers of the importance of the pause for reflection.  He writes, “If you’re sitting in the office zipping from e-mail to e-mail to text to Web page to buzzing mobile and back again—that is, doing the usual digital dance—you’re likely losing all kinds of opportunities to reach” the depth of reflection that leads to creativity, to insight, to a meaningful human experience.  He argues that digital devices can actually provide us with moments of connectedness so significant that they can “feed our emotional, social, and spiritual hungers,” but only if we build in gaps that allow us unconnected time to nurture the inner life.

When I first began bringing Cleo to work with me, when she was a tiny puppy with a tiny bladder, a colleague at school who spends a good deal of his time outdoors overseeing the physical aspects of the campus, remarked that he’d never seen me outside so much.  “That’s got to be good for you,” he added.  These days, when a potty break mid-day is all she needs, it’s a fabulous excuse to get me outside and onto the field for a romp with Cleo.  Even on the busiest of days, when the thought of having to take twenty minutes or so to let her pee and run around sniffing at gopher holes fills me with palpitation-causing anxiety, I know I have to go.  Within minutes of breathing in fresh air, of watching those tasseled ears flop, the tongue loll and the mouth gape in a smile, my stress level has dipped below the red line.  After a walk and some play time, I go back to the office or into the classroom refreshed, more patient, more creative, certainly more centered.

The other day, a friend at work sent me a link to an article titled “Man’s Best Friend May Be His Best Co-Worker, Too.”  According to the article, the first quantitative study ever done on the effects of pet dogs in the workplace showed that “Dogs in the workplace can make a positive difference. The differences in perceived stress between days the dog was present and absent were significant. The employees as a whole had higher job satisfaction than industry norms."  Not only was stress reduced, the employees communicated better with each other, they were more cooperative with and supportive of each other, and felt more supported by their employers.  Perhaps dogs provide us with that gap that William Powers champions, that pause for reflection and renewal.  They make us disengage from the cold, hard digital and connect with the furry, warm-tongued analog.  It’s long been known that pets lower our blood pressure, raise our spirits, and generally lead to self-reported higher levels of happiness.  Any dog owner could list dozens of reasons to explain this.

This past week, I made it a practice to sit with Cleo and make a fuss over her every time I returned to the office, whether I’d been away for an hour-long class or just for a quick pop out to the bathroom.  As much as I could, I disengaged from the small screens and took my work to the couch where I could sit next to her as she snoozed or gnawed on a toy.  I tried to build gaps of reflection into my day.  Maybe next week I’ll use the Out of Office feature on my email to send a canned reply: “I am currently away from my computer, communing with my dog.  I will get back to you when I feel like it.”

Okay, maybe not.  But I still vow to disengage from the digital and allow myself the gift of reflection.  With plenty of Cleo time.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dogton Abbey

In Dogster’s delightfully silly photo essay “If the Characters in Downton Abbey Were Portrayed by Canine Actors, What Breeds Would They Be?” it is the character of the love-starved Lady Edith Crawley who gets to be a Bedlington Terrier.  Now, I say “gets to be,” but Dogster describes the Bedlington like this: “Basically an ugly Poodle.”  I mean, really!  I think I have made my feelings about Poodles (and Poodle owners) fairly clear in blog-posts past, and I reiterate that there isn’t a Poodle alive who is worthy of sniffing a Bedlington’s ear tassel.  Ugly Poodle, indeed!

Then again, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder.  It’s true that when we meet people out on our walks, many will furrow their brows, wrinkle their noses and twist their mouths into sneers before asking, in mystified tones, “Is that some sort of Poodle mix?”  As soon as we answer, “No, she’s a Bedlington Terrier,” their expressions clear into wide-eyed delight.  “Oh!  She’s adorable!” they say (right before adding the ubiquitous lamb comment).  It seems to relieve them that she’s not a Poodle-hybrid of some kind.

And it’s not just Bedlington parents or intelligent passers-by who see the beauty in the Bedlington.  As I may have mentioned, our trainer is not given to flights of fancy where dogs are concerned.  Yes, she will rhapsodize about the nobility of dogs. She’ll lecture on the intelligence of the species.  She’ll talk to us about the absolute necessity of respecting our dogs, of learning to communicate with them, not as mini people, but as the dogs they are.  Yet she never gets all gooshy and squishy about dogs.  Except where Cleo is concerned.   Last week, Cleo and I were in class, practicing figure eights.  Our trainer came over to observe us and of course Cleo gazed at her in rapt adoration.  “Yes, I see you,” Pluis told her warmly.  Then she turned to a woman in our group.  “Isn’t she lovely?” she asked.  “There’s just something about that face.  It’s so cute!  I just want to suck on her nose!”  Okay, ewww, granted.  But it was just such a funny, eccentric thing to say that we all laughed.

At school, there is one student who spends virtually all her free time with Cleo.  Two out of every three of her utterances involve the words “so cute” or “the cutest thing ever.”  It’s not uncommon for me to come back to my office after a class or a meeting to find students clustered around my door observing Cleo.  I’ve given up saying to them, “You know you can go in and pat her!”  The usual response is, “We just want to watch her sleep.  She’s so adorable.” 

She’s not just cute, though, not once you’ve seen her move.  It has been pouring down rain here this week.  During a brief respite yesterday afternoon, we walked Cleo up to the park near our house where there’s a wide open grass lawn that is always empty.  We took off her leash and let her rip.  She warmed up with sprints between Daddy and Mommy, flying from one end of the field to the other, looping wide around one of us, then pelting back to loop around the other.  She ran over to an adjacent lawn next to several barbecue pits, tearing around the circuit at top speed.  Around and around she sped, now circling the edges, now slaloming through the center.  As she banked around the turns, she dug into the lawn and leaned, her shoulder almost brushing the grass.  In the straight-aways, she was airborne, her feet seeming to tap the earth just enough to keep her aloft.  She flattened herself to the ground, grinning, tongue and ears streaming back in the wind of her own making.  She was exultant; we were exhilarated.  At the end of one circuit, instead of banking, she launched, up and over a waist high wall that divides the park from the sidewalk.  She cleared it without the least sign of strain.  I had no idea she could jump that high.  The terrifying picture of her dashing into the street (empty though it was) made me shout, “No!”  Instantly, she came to a dead stop and turned to face me, tongue lolling.  The leash safely clipped on and our steps headed back home, I said to John, “I’ve got to get her back into agility classes.”  The beauty of that grace and easy athleticism is kind of awe inspiring.  You feel as if you’re not doing your Bedlington justice if you don’t provide an outlet for that extraordinary natural talent.

To be completely honest, though, I haven’t been a hundred percent complimentary about her looks since last Thursday.  For two grooming cycles, we were trying out a new groomer.  She didn’t pan out, so we returned to our original groomer.  By the time he was able to fit her in, Cleo was looking pretty shaggy.  For whatever reason, he took her hair down very, very short, including on her face which is now pointy rather than having the distinctive Bedlington curve.  She looks like a fuzzy pterodactyl.  At least that’s what I’ve been calling her since last Thursday.  It doesn’t seem to faze her in the least.  Cleo isn’t image conscious; she’s just a little lovey snuggle girl.

Bedlington Terrier

After their misguided first sentence, the dogster people go on to say, “Loyal to a fault, hard-working, and just wants someone to notice. Longs to curl up at your (or anyone's) feet and finally be loved.”  Most of that is absolutely right.  The only part I’d argue with is the last phrase.  Finally be loved?”

 That’s true for Lady Edith, but not for Bedlingtons.  Who can resist loving them the instant one lays eyes on them?